Thursday, June 23, 2005

Supreme Court extends eminent domain

Today's decision is a blow for the ownership rights of private citizens.
A divided Supreme Court ruled that local governments may seize people's homes and businesses against their will for private development in a decision anxiously awaited in communities where economic growth conflicts with individual property rights.
scales of justice?The majority decision was rendered by the strange coalition of Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer.

Government siezing of private property has been traditionally limited to use of the land for explicitly public works -- e.g., rerouting a highway, building a stadium, and the like -- but this case was about building a private office complex. I find this notion nontrivially shocking: who gets to decide that my neighborhood is so crappy (or powerless) that it should be razed for more exciting city developments?! Commercial properties always represent more tax revenue than private citizens, but surely that's not our criterion for defining the "public interest" and the limits of my legal rights!! Justice O'Conner echoes my concerns in her dissent:
"Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random," O'Connor wrote. "The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms."
Indeed. I feel for New London's desire to revitalize itself, but this seems like a terrible precedent for much less laudable projects and politicians.

(via Metafilter)

Update: short NPR piece on the story (with Nina Totenberg) in Real Audio here.
(via How Appealing)

Update 2: SCOTUSblog provides the following encapsulation of the majority opinion:
The Court commented: "Those who govern the city [of New London] were not confronted with the need to remove blight..., but their determination that the area was sufficiently distressed to justify a program of economic rejuvenation is entitled to our deference....Clearly, there is no basis for exempting economic development from our traditionally broad understanding of public purpose."
I guess we have to hope that each legislature can be held accountable for the "broad latitude" that the Court sees fit to afford them. I'm not sure that "economic development" always leads to civic-minded views of the public good...

Update 3: fellow liberal Mithras thinks this decision was about right, and that politics is the way to punish bad policy, not invocation of the Constitution.

1 comment:

Mithras said...

I also don't think this changed the law very much. Before now, the "public use" requirement was "coterminus with the police power" - that is, not much of an impediment at all.

It's hard for me to get worked up about this, when a decision the other way could be just as easily used for evil as for good.